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The Best of the Holidays in North Jersey

You’ll want to make yearly traditions out of these can’t-miss events.


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ALL MONTH LONG

Big Santa

One Garden State Plaza, Paramus​
201-843-2121

This year, Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus brought back a decorative icon from winters past, the legendary giant light-up Santa Claus. The new Santa figure is 45 feet tall and has size 90 boots. After finding a place atop a chimney from the ’50s through the ’80s as the unofficial sign of the holiday season start in Bergen County, Santa’s made his return after a 30-year hiatus. To see St. Nick in all his glowing glory, head to the entrance by Nordstrom.

Skylands Stadium Christmas Light Show and Village

94 Championship Pl., Augusta
973-383-7644

Dazzle the kids from the comfort of your car with more than two million lights. Pass dancing presents, friendly snowmen, toy-lugging trains and more on the mile-long drive-through course. Head inside after to explore the Christmas Village. This holiday hub has it all: Santa Claus, arts and crafts, carnival games, caroling, an ice rink, outdoor grilling, a s’mores station and even surprise showers of indoor snow. Shop everything from artisanal jams to comic book merch to locally-made clothes to exotic meat jerky (yup, you read that right). After all that shopping, snack on cheesecake, fudge or something warm from the food court. If you want a formal dinner, the wheelHouse Craft Kitchen + Bar is an on-site restaurant the whole crew will enjoy.

Bergen County’s Winter Wonderland at Van Saun Park

216 Forest Ave., Paramus

The seasonal spectacular features a number of wintry attractions, including open-air ice rinks (there’s a synthetic rink for beginners that parents can walk on sans-skates!), unlimited Bergen Express Train and carousel rides, Van Saun’s zoo and Santa’s North Pole Dome and Workshop (get pics with the Big Guy there). If you’re feeling chilly, head to the indoor beer garden for a glass of vino and food truck fare. The decor alone will thrill kiddies of all ages, especially the huge Christmas tree smack in the middle of all the fun, and the 70 unique trees designated for each Bergen County town. And don't miss special events like face painting, balloon art, live ice carving and more (check the calendar for details).

Turtle Back Zoo Holiday Lights Spectacular

560 Northfield Ave., West Orange
973-731-5800

Combine two of the kids’ favorite things: the holidays and a visit to the zoo. See 50 illuminated winter and animal characters and come back every weekend for themed activities. Don’t forget to bring food and clothes to donate. Meet Santa on Saturdays and Sundays, see Princesses December 7-9 and live ice carving on December 21-22. Don’t forget to sign the little ones up for storytime with Mrs. Claus, too. Ends December 23.

FESTIVALS AND LOCAL GEMS

Christmas Pop-Up

229 Centre St., Nutley​
973-542-8151

Nutley’s own Cowan’s Pub will be decked out to the nines with holiday decor, and slinging next-level drinks with seasonal inspiration. Miracle on Centre, a pop-up bar inside Cowan’s, opened November 23 and is mixing up all things holly jolly until New Year’s Eve. Old faves include the Snowball Old Fashioned (butterscotch rye, spiced demerara, wormwood bitters, orange zest) complete with a snowball of ice, while newcomers like the And a Partridge In a Pear Tree (reposado tequila, pear brandy, mezcal, spiced demerara syrup, lime, egg white, club soda, angostura bitters, cinnamon) are sure to be showstoppers, as well. All cocktails are served in Cocktail Kingdom’s signature Miracle glassware, which are available for purchase. Miracle (along with other locales across the US) is donating 10 percent of all glassware sales to Action Against Hunger, a global humanitarian org that fights hunger and provides access to water, food, healthcare and emergency response services internationally.

Maplewood Dickens Village

Across from Maplewood Train Station
Ricalton Square, Maplewood

The Village has been a Maplewood tradition for the last half-century. Ten houses are filled with miniature figures and decor that depict scenes from Charles Dickens’ classic tale, A Christmas Carol. Peer into the houses (don’t worry, windows are low just for little ones) and see festive features and familiar characters. On December 8 and 15, carolers will stroll through the village while guests go wild at a petting farm, horse and wagon rides, holiday concerts, crafts and more. You can even have breakfast with Santa at nearby eateries on select dates. This free event runs every Saturday through December 15.

Gingerbread Wonderland and Craft Show

Frelinghuysen Arboretum
353 East Hanover Ave., Morris Twp.
973-326-7601

This December marks the 27th annual Gingerbread Wonderland, which boasts more than 200 edible structures. Past gingerbread creations have included models of Notre Dame Cathedral, Hanukkah menorahs, Japanese temples, Chinese pagodas, European castles and neighborhood sweet shops. You can also fill out a form to submit your own gingerbread creation to Wonderland. If that's not enough holiday sweetness for you, visit during the Gingerbread Craft Show full of handmade crafts available for purchase.  Admission to both events is $2 at the door and kids 2 and under are free. Runs through December 9.

Christmas Festival at the Morristown Green

Morristown Green
10 N. Park Pl., Morristown
973-539-4900

The kids will be wowed by everything from ice sculpting to vintage rocking horse rides. The Green will be all gussied up in all things merry and bright, and receive frequent visits from the Man in Red himself. Snap pics with twinkling holiday lights, sip hot cocoa, ride a mini train, hit the Santa House (your Santa pics are free with a recent receipt from select local restos!), work on limited-time activities like ornament making, card crafting, holiday sing-alongs and snowflake constructing. Build your own gingerbread house on December 22. Runs weekends through December 23.

Kwanzaa Festival and Marketplace

NJPAC
1 Center St., Newark
1-888-GO-NJPAC

This 19th annual event on December 14-15 is chock-full of cultural goodies and holiday entertainment. Shop custom clothing, handmade jewelry, bath products, art pieces and more (you can win a prize if you visit all 20 vendors!). Celebrate at a Saturday concert (2 and 7:30 pm) featuring a top-tier dance company and musical group Sweet Honey in the Rock. The free Kwanzaa Family Festival is on December 15 from 10 am-2 pm. Let the kids try some fancy footwork a la Capoeira and West African dance, grab a seat at the Kwanzaa ceremony, give arm knitting and collage making a go and more. Daily activities include face painting, storytelling, African drumming and more.

HOLIDAY TRAIN RIDES

Polar Express Whippany

1 Railroad Plaza, Whippany

They love the book and the movie; now they can experience this magical legacy IRL. Kids will receive their iconic silver sleigh bells in addition to hot chocolate and a cookie served by whimsical dancing chefs. Your crew will meet Santa while reading along with the famous children's book, The Polar Express. The ride is one hour long. Splurge on First Class seating in a stunning restored 1940s coach boasting extra leg room and huge windows. (TIX STILL AVAILABLE DEC. 26-30)

Barron Arts Center Holiday Model Train Show

Barron Arts Center
582 Rahway Ave., Woodbridge
732-634-0413

Want all the magic of holiday trains minus the expense of riding one yourself? Take the kids to see an exhibit of wintry model locomotives through December 30 for free. Donations are welcome. Indulge in refreshments from Wegmans Food Market and tons of holiday surprises (like a Santa meet-and-greet!).

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